Different Cultures and Customs

Different cultures and customs article


IMG_8367 Different Cultures and Customs

Different Cultures and Customs… wow, what a big phrase! Almost anything could be considered a custom, from the food one ingests to the clothes one wears to the language one speaks. Rather than try to narrow down what is meant by a “custom,” I’d rather stay zoomed-out and big picture and use this article to discuss how to deal with difference when traveling more generally.


I remember visiting Paris with my mother the summer after I graduated from college. My mother speaks very good French and me, not so much, which will be important as the story unfolds. One afternoon, we were sitting in a sidewalk café, enjoying a glass of wine (or a crepe, or an omelette… to tell the truth, it doesn’t matter so much what it was we were enjoying), and having a pleasant, relaxed, leisurely discussion, as was everyone else around us. Suddenly, we became aware of some loud shouting happening behind us. We turned around to see a stocky, red-faced, angry-looking tourist, yelling in American-accented English, “STOP IT! STOP SPEAKING FRENCH AT ME! YOU OVERCHARGED ME ON THIS BILL AND I WANT MY MONEY BACK.”


The frightened waitress shook her head, trembling, and attempted to explain the situation in French. This only served to make the tourist more angry.




Someone at a table nearby quietly remarked to the man that it was very possible the young girl did not know any English, and as such, could not respond to him in any other way – and for that matter, she probably had no idea what he was saying to her.

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Upon hearing this ridiculous statement, my mother rose to her feet and quietly went over to where the young girl and the angry man were standing. She translated the man’s words into French for the young girl, the young girl nodded and said something in French, my mother translated it back into English for the angry tourist. They got the dispute over the bill worked out, and the man said to my mother, “Thanks. I can’t believe how hard it was to work out such a simple situation.”


My mother smiled graciously, and instead of chastising him for the way he had treated a high-school-age girl, said, “Please remember when you are in another country, a little bit of courtesy goes a long way.”


To me, that pretty much encapsulates the situation. A little bit of courtesy goes a long way. Often when traveling, you may encounter situations which are different, or foreign, or frustrating, or downright enraging. But screaming at a waitress in a sidewalk café never gets you anywhere. It only earns you the ire and contempt of everyone around you. Working with the system, instead of against it, is the best (and truthfully, only) way to get the most out of any experience in a foreign country.


So what does this look like on the ground? It’s simple, really, and it all comes back to that Golden Rule we all learned in kindergarten: treat people as you would like to be treated. This may sound like an absolute no-brainer, but it can be difficult to keep this in mind when you are confronted with norms you do not understand or placed in the middle of a frustrating situation. A couple of tips to hopefully help you avoid that as you travel:

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  • Research your destination thoroughly before your departure. There is a multitude of information out there, whether that information is contained in guidebooks, online resources, or on travel TV shows. (Hint: if you don’t want to buy a guidebook, check one out of your local library, Xerox the relevant pages, and return it.) Nothing seems that strange if you are at least intellectually prepared.
  • If possible, travel with a buddy. Some people really enjoy traveling alone (I am one of those people), but if you are headed to a completely and utterly foreign land, there’s nothing like the reassuring presence of someone you know to help keep your behavior in check. Travel buddies can warn you if you’re being rude, assist you in figuring out things you can’t quite seem to get on your own, and help turn the tenor of a lot of situations from frustration and anger to laughter and self-deprecation.
  • Take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re a guest. Think back to that man my mother and I observed in Paris. Pretend he’s from Chicago, for no particular reason whatsoever except that it’s a typical American city. Now. Let’s say this man was invited to a dinner party at someone else’s home, back in Chicago. His host does something he finds rude or bizarre – I’ll leave exactly what up to your imagination. Do you think he would have exploded at his Chicagoan host? Unless this man is severely unhinged, I would guess probably not. So why did he feel entitled to explode at his teenage French waitress? He had forgotten, or not fully digested the concept, that he was a guest. When traveling, never forget that the foreign country is not there for you. The inhabitants of that land will continue doing whatever they do, regardless of whether or not you choose to visit them. Never forget that your destination owes you absolutely nothing. On the contrary, you owe it to your destination to be a respectful, kind, and courteous guest. Because that is what you are – a guest.


Although these tips may seem relatively self-evident or broad, they have come in handy so often on various trips that I have taken. Sometimes, common sense and common courtesy is the absolute first thing to go out the window when you are confronted with different and seemingly “strange” customs. Because this article is not destination-specific, I encourage you to hone in on your country of choice’s customs and educate yourself before departure. Keep these broad principles in mind, color in a little more with some specifics, and you should be ready for absolutely any situation that could be thrown at you.

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